Dead C. entry from the Spin Guide to Alternative Rock (by Alex Ross)

Anyone who automatically associates New Zealand with the smooth, poporiented indie sound of the Chills and the Bats knows only half the story No sooner did the Flying Nun label's star acts reach American shores in the mid '80s than some malcontents back home began muttering about plush production values, cushy distribution deals, and other symptoms of sell-out. Peter Jefferies, the lead singer of This Kind of Punishment, abandoned Flying Nun and joined Bruce Russell, of the noisemongering Dead C., to create the Xpressway label, dedicated to lo-fi, homegrown music from New Zealand's desolate South Island. New groups with names like the 3Ds, the Terminals, Trash, and Cyclops have given fresh ammunition to people who think New Zealand has way too many bands for its own goodas well as doing as much for John Cale as their predescessors did for Lou Reed.

The cadaverous-voiced Jefferies is about as indie as they come; he boasts of recording in "sub-standard conditions on sub-standard equipment." He formed This Kind of Punishment in the early 80's with his brother Graeme. It's understandable that Flying Nun didn't really know what to do with them; the mood goes from brown to black, and Peter's vocals gravitate toward spacey selfabsorption. But a few symphonically sprawling songs like "Don't Go" (from In the Same Room) testify that this band was, briefly, one of New Zealand's greatest. Creative tensions between the brothers led to a split-up in 1987;

Graeme went off to form the more contained Cakekitchen, while Peter concentrated on solo work and stints in parttime bands like Plagal Grind and Cyclops. His solo records get mixed reactions; some find them harrowingly personal, others are annoyed by their New Age-y synthesizer doodlings. Cyclops, a, collaboration with Bruce Blücher of the Velvet Undergroundish band Trash, encouragingly echoes the fiercer side of This Kind of Punishment.

The Dead C. is New Zealand's official representative at the postpunk noise fair, echoing early Pere Ubu, Sonic Youth circa Sister and the ubiquitous Velvets. Bruce Russell and Michael Morley are the guitarists, and Robbie Yeats (once of the Verlaines) plays drums; together they produce reverberating, bell-like tones, mournful processions of minor chords, and sudden squalls of arrhythmic noise. Conventional song structure is pretty much verboten, although Eusa Kills does offer a few semi-recognizable covers and tributes ("Children" is T Rex's "Children of the Revolution" done with David Thomas vocals and Led Zep drums), and the earliest readily available album, DR503, serves up dissonance in manageable song-like segments. At its best, the Dead C. gives a dreamy, lyrical sheen to guitar squalor, like snow covering up a train wreck; "Helen Said This," which appears on at least three Dead C. records, including the hard-tofind but desirable Trapdoor Fucking Exit, ends with vast, gorgeous ch

The 3Ds, headed by David Mitchell and Denise Roughan, achieve a seductive compromise between Xpressway noise and Flying Nun pop. While hailing from such lusciously tuneful mid-'80s bands as the Bird Nest Roys and the allfemale Look Blue Go Purple, they are generally more aggressive than the N.Z. norm: rhythms are propulsive and syncopated, melodies angularly dissonant, Mitchell's guitar spastically restless. The first two EPs, Fish Tales and Swarthy Songs for Swabs, display superb songwriting skills right off the bat, whether in the rancid "Evil Kid" or the ruminative "Meluzina Man." The more poppy Hellzapoppin is the result of an ill-considered BMG deal during which the band temporarily got lost in the wilds of the American alternative scene. Venus Trail stays the course: "Hey Seuss," "Spooky" and others show a drive and style rare in New Zealand's studiedly casual indie world.

The Xpressway universe can also be entered by way of three excellent compilation albums. Xpressway Pile=Up offers, among other things, first-class songs by the Dead C., the 3Ds, and Peter Jefferies in his most palatable solo mode. Killing Capitalism with Kindness concentrates on solo tidbits by the likes of David Mitchell, the Clean's David Kilgour, and the maverick guitarist Alastair Galbraith; despite the diversity of sources, it's a consistently involving collection of tuneful, often folky idiosyncrasies. Making Losers Happy gathers up the best Xpressway singles, including listenable early Dead C. material and two masterpieces from the superband Plagal Grind, a collaboration between Jefferies, Galbraith, and Mitchell. And think of the 12,314 possible permutations of New Zealand bands remaining to be tried ...